Metal Max 2 Kai - Staff Retroview  

The Future à la Gibson
by Michael Baker

20-40 Hours
+ You get to drive tanks!
+ Bounty heads are challenging.
+ Wide and imaginative world to explore.
- Menus are awkward and archaic.
- Losing a battle is worse than a Game Over.
+ The LOVE Machine.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Here is a game that has been on my backlog for a long time. I first picked up Metal Max 2 Kai in a used games store back in 2005, but I found then that my Japanese was not up to the task. Six years later, with news of a remake arriving from the ether, I decided to pick it up once more. Thankfully my grasp of the language has improved.

   Metal Max 2 was originally for the Super Famicom system circa 1993. The Kai is just to show that it's a GBA port, so it won't be used after this. With its system of origin in mind, it's much easier to appreciate the amount of creative juices that went into this title. The games of the Metal Max series number among the few open-world JRPGs ever attempted, and Metal Max 2 actually handles it well. The region known as Acid Canyon plays host to a wide variety of explorable areas, and access comes in stages as certain thresholds are crossed. At first, only two towns and a patch of shark-infested desert can be explored, but the scope of the game steadily expands until halfway through, when theoretically every area of the game except the final level becomes accessible — if the player has the levels and equipment to survive.

   Open-world RPGs are rarely known for their stories, and Metal Max 2 doesn't try too hard in this area. The first few minutes provide much of the justification the game needs. Generations after the world was consumed in a fit of crazed-AI scorched earth housecleaning, the inhabitants of Acid Canyon are just trying to get by. Then come the Grapplers, a well organized army of thugs who kidnap the young, kill the old, and extort everyone else. In their way stand four great warriors: Falcon Fei, Gearhead Garcia, Ace Apache, and the warrior woman Maria. As the town of Mado's last line of defense, they were doing well up to the point when Ted Broiler brought his gauntlet mounted flamethrowers into play. The only survivor of the battle was Maria's adopted protègé, the Kid, who must now become the hero that Acid Canyon needs, avenging himself on the Grapplers in the process.

Caption Putting the "Why?" back in wildlife.

   Aside from the Kid, there are three other usable characters. The Mechanic and the Soldier-girl each have their own bit of backstory to sort of explain why they tag along, but their names seem to vary from game to game. On the other hand, there are multiple combat dogs to choose from, but only Pochi has the stats to be worth taking along. Aside from that, there is one guest character who joins for a short while, and there's a short list of important NPCs, but character interaction really isn't in the cards for this title. The backstory already mentioned encapsulates most of the plot. While MM2 has its fair share of dramatic moments, much more effort was invested in the setting. Like his mentor, the Kid is a bounty hunter, and there are sixteen bounties to be collected in Acid Canyon. Five of these are required to open new areas or progress the plot. The rest haunt the far corners of the land. From the Adam Ant in its forest hive to Madam Muscle and her army of Amazon ninja esthetician clones, there is plenty of ground to cover, experience to gain, and bounties to cash in. What is lacking is any clear direction for the Kid. Towards the beginning it seems simple enough — work to free the Mechanic from prison — but as the map opens up, blind exploration becomes the rule of the day. Without a good guide or a decent level of skill in Japanese, the player will find little direction as to where to go next. With such a rich and varied landscape, it doesn't always matter.

   This game was originally released in 1993, and the graphics have not been altered for the GBA port. The color palette and spritework are inferior to Final Fantasy IV, but only slightly. When it was first produced this game was most likely seen as pretty good in this respect. While tiny, the party members' sprites have their own personality, like the Mechanic's skull and bones leather jacket or the Soldier-girl's incredibly 80's wardrobe. Monster sprites are equally memorable, be they of giant ants, feral buses, gangster kangaroos, or Ted Broiler with his blue jumpsuit and bright red mohawk. Locations in this game all have their own unique look as well. One town is built upon a section of suspended railway. Another is to be found in a swan-shaped cruise boat. A third used to be a tourist trap, and even now its cargo cult of inhabitants awaits the return of the Customers. In short, as unimpressive as the graphics may be nowadays, Crea-Tech really put an effort into making this game as visually unique as possible.

   Like the graphics, the music in MM2 instantly identifies it as a part of the 16-bit generation. The soundtrack is the handiwork of Satoshi Kadokawa, whose composing credits include many Japanese pop singers, movies, and anime. While nothing in his work on MM2 really stands out, most tracks are appropriate and the boss themes are memorable. The juke boxes that clutter the towns (and occasionally the levels) of the game only play four tunes each, so it becomes interesting to just check them out whenever possible. Sound effects are more bleepy and bloopy though, which can make battles more annoying from an auditory standpoint.

Caption Man's best friend carries a bazooka.

   The battle system may prove too archaic for many players. Actions for party members are chosen at the start of the round, with events playing out according to a semi-specific turn order. There are no combat skills. Instead, different weapons may have wildly different effects in battle, with explosive, edged, kinetic, burning, freezing, acid, electric, and sonic weapons all available. Generally, MM2 is good about having groups of weapons in the same range of attack power, making it easy to switch up the party's equipment for a bit of variety. Item use is also cumbersome, as each character has a limited personal inventory, and healing items can only be used on the bearer in battle. There are some combat items that can prove useful when facing off high-defense foes, but the real star of the game's item inventory is the LOVE Machine. This device requires twelve chips which are scattered across Acid Canyon. Its eighty-one configurations range from the useless (whacky laughter) to the life-saving (near-immunity to a specific attack element). The final two bosses of the game would be much more difficult without it. Even with all this, the battle system is definitely one area that could have been expanded upon.

   That's just the face-to-face combat, however. The Metal Max series may have been one of the first to incorporate vehicular combat. The player can have a total of eight vehicles: one gifted, six discovered, one custom made (with a choice of four chassis). They range from the humble dune buggy to the acme of pre-Fall combat engineering. There are a few things they all have in common, though — equipment. Vehicles have six types of equipment: the chassis (specific to the vehicle and cannot be changed), the engine, the CPU, the main gun, a side gun, and special armaments. Any of these may be damaged with a strong enough hit, and if one of the first three is broken then the vehicle can't move under its own power until the broken item is replaced or repaired. There is a rental service available, but those tanks cannot have their equipment changed or upgraded, and the rental agency will collect half of all money collected from battles as payment.

   For the vehicles, weight is everything. Each piece of equipment has its own weight in tons, and if the engine isn't strong enough to move that much, then the player's going nowhere. On the other hand, there's no practical limitation aside from weight. With a strong enough engine, a three-ton dune buggy can carry five times its weight in weaponry and eleven times its weight in ablative armor tiles. These tiles protect the car from damage to its parts and function much as hit points do for the fleshy fighters. Even at zero vehicular HP it's still possible to fight; it's just far more likely that the enemy will hit something vital.

   One other thing seriously dates this game, unfortunately, and that is the interface. Battle menus are clunky and take up half the screen. The main menu needs to be brought up to talk to people or examine items, much like in the old Dragon Quest games. The primary tank menu is thankfully not necessary, as vehicular stats, equipment, and items can be accessed via the same channels as their human counterparts. The interface is the least innovative part of this title, and may not suite younger gamers who started with more advanced games. As one last example, the game keeps a running text commentary of combat. This is adjustable at any time, even in battle, allowing to change from a play-by-play all the way to an all-action, no numbers blast of ammunition as both sides duke it out.

   There are two major issues with the language barrier in this game (aside from needing to know Japanese). First is that the text font sizes are uneven; kanji are much larger than kana. This can be disconcerting at first, especially to someone who's still picking up the language. Font size is also an issue in the primary tank menu, which is why it's best left alone. The other issue stems from the open-world nature of the game. Random NPC chatter becomes much more important when there is no other means of pointing the way. This game's lack of rail-roading also means that one cannot simply go with the flow and trust that the game will happen anyway.

Caption I wasn't joking about the shark-infested deserts.

   Unlike in other early SNES RPGs, full party wipeouts in this game do not mean a Game Over. Instead, the Kid will be dragged back to the laboratory of mad Dr. Minch for reanimation. This is a mixed blessing, as one will discover once the Kid gains allies. Minch's assistant Igor will only bring back the Kid, and any other characters are apparently lost. Vehicles will remain wherever the player left them last (wipeouts are far more common away from vehicles), and often that location will be near impossible to get back to on foot, at least in one piece. There's also a bug that sometimes freezes the game after a wipeout, but as the player will already be reaching for the reset button, this isn't much of a problem.

   It's unfortunate that this series never made it to America, as it would have done well back in the early 90's. It stands out in a crowd of medieval fantasy games, but is enough like them that the FF4 fans would likely have accepted it with open arms. The ubiquitous bars probably didn't help its chances of localization. In any case, what's done is done. The past is the past, and the future is apparently a lot like old Mel Gibson movies.

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